A lot of people think meditation is intimidating. So I thought I’d share a reality check: my own experience this week. Hint: I did not fit in the picture above.
One of the first silent meditations I went to was in a Buddhist community in Baton Rouge. It was 30 aching minutes, and I remember every ten minutes, the monk leading would ring a gong, or deep singing bowl or something, and say in a rhythmic, almost hypnotic way “Breathing in. Breathing out. This is how you meditate.” It was a call to notice where my mind wandered, and come back to my breath. He only said it twice, but those words lodged themselves into my memory in such a way that I think about them many times a year. These words even inspired my own sitting practice, which is only about 20 minutes (when I can sit still that long), but has a bell in the middle that I use to call myself back from whatever story or daydream I’ve been following in my head.
A few nights ago, I was exhausted but completely wound up in my head with a struggle between doing what I’ve always done (going back into my very safe, very stressful, very unsatisfactory IT career, because it’s safe) and doing what I don’t know (moving forward into the unknown with massage and related things that are as yet not fully defined). Sleep does not occur in this state, and I was particularly annoyed because I knew the next day was full, and wanted to rest well and be up early. I decided to breathe, with a mantra to help refocus my mind.
I started with my default mantra – saying silently “Let” on the inhale, and “Go” on the exhale. It’s a good mantra, generic, gentle. After what seemed like a long time, but clearly wasn’t enough time, I was still struggling in my head, and I noticed myself forcefully exhaling on the “go”, as if I could blow all the storm clouds out of my head… But I stuck with it, and some time later, I felt my body relax, all at once. The struggle was still there, but pausing, and so I let my focus relax, too. (That was a mistake.)
In less than a minute, my mind was back at its worry war, and my body followed. So I began again, but I decided to use different words. When my dog is interested in something I don’t want him to be interested in (think: sniffing dead things and about to eat them/roll in them), the words I use are “Leave it.” The words “Leave it” acknowledge what is there, and simply instruct the recipient to leave it alone. Sometimes, “Let go” doesn’t feel (to me) like it gives the proper respect to what is being struggled with. So, this being round 2, it seemed appropriate to acknowledge all this mental turmoil, and then declare my intention to leave it alone. I have no idea how long it took. The next morning, I woke feeling that my sleep had been just as worried as my wakefulness the night before, but at least I had actually slept. Partial success.
My sitting practice looks similar to this, as much of the time as not. And I’m fairly certain that at least 2 of the 5 people in that photo had runaway thoughts racing through their heads at that moment, too. I keep at it because, where the rest of my life used to have huge periods run-on sentences – worries or criticisms and judgments or wishful daydreams never to be fulfilled… today my life has large chunks of time where if you ask me what I’m thinking, I can’t find a thought. I’m simply in whatever I’m doing – cooking, working, studying. It’s a beautiful thing, the effect of this practice. My sitting practice is still full of run-on sentences and daydreams, though the negative thoughts have largely been replaced by the litany of things I think I need to accomplish during a day. If I were on that beach, I’d probably have about 4 minutes of effortless quiet, before my thoughts began their own course and I began counting the waves to 10, at 10 saying, “Breathing in, breathing out. This is how you meditate.”